On Empiricist and Rationalist Epistemologies

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Reply Mon 22 Oct, 2007 03:47 am
During the early modern period, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, problems about the nature of human knowledge divided philosophers into two schools.

In one school were the empiricists which included the philosophers John Locke (1632-1704), George Berkeley (1685-1753), and David Hume (1711-1776). This school of philosophers taught that all of our ideas are derived from experience and that all of the possible knowledge that we can have cannot come from anything independent of experience.

In the other school were the rationalists represented by philosophers such as Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Baruch Spinoza ((1632-1677), and Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716). These philosophers taught that human beings are born with 'innate ideas.' That is, they believe that certain truths can be known prior to, or in the absence of, external experience. These truths are called necessary or a priori truths.

There is one point here that I would like to make regarding these two schools of thought. That is that both the empiricist and the rationalist are "rationalists" in the general sense of the term. That is to say, they both support rational inquiry as the means to pursue the truth.

They do differ as regards to what rational inquiry consists of, as the empiricists say it can consist of only sense experience whereas the rationalists would dispute this claim, saying that the seat of rational inquiry resides in the intellect.

Empiricists emphasize the role of sensory perception in the formation of ideas while they exclude the conception of 'innate' or a priori knowledge. So the early modern empiricists would differ also from Plato's philosophy which speculates that man is aquainted with the 'ideas,' the ultimate universals, before he is born. In this sense Plato is considered a rationalist.




--Pyth
 
Pythagorean
 
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2007 07:46 am
@Pythagorean,
The term 'rationalist' comes from the Latin ratio ('reason'), while the term 'empiricist' comes from the Greek empeiria ('experience'). While it is true that the classical 'rationalist' philosophers, e.g. Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, were not pure 'apriorists' in that they did not try to do away with sense experience altogether, it is nonetheless true that they shared a belief that it was possible, by the use of reason, to gain a superior kind of knowledge to that derived from the senses.

Descartes, for example, saw it as one of the first steps in metaphysics to 'lead the mind away from the senses'; he believed that our inborn 'natural light' or 'light of reason' (lumen naturale, lux rationis) would enable us to 'penetrate the secrets of the most recondite sciences', as he puts it.

Spinoza, for his part, described cognition based on 'random experience' (experientia vaga) as the lowest grade of cognition -- a 'mutilated and confused' kind of awareness that cannot provide an adequate representation of reality. For Spinoza, reason alone can perceive things 'truly, as they are in themselves'.

Leibniz, too, embraces the notion of an innate 'natural light' of reason which, he argues, enables us to know necessary truths: 'the senses can help us after a fashion to know what is, but they cannot help us to know what must be or what cannot be otherwise.' We need to go beyond the senses to gain knowledge of 'the universal and necessary truths of the sciences'.


"empiricists are like ants; they collect and put to use; but rationalists are like spiders; they spin threads out of themselves"
-- Francis Bacon, from Cogitata et Visa (1607)


(Though Bacon is often supposed to be extolling the role of the ant, he in fact likens the 'true process of philosophy' to the activity of the bee, who first collects his material and then transforms it.)

Links:

MODERN PHILOSOPHY: The Philosophy of Rationalism

MODERN PHILOSOPHY: The Philosophy of Empiricism


Rationalism vs. Empiricism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
 
Didymos Thomas
 
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2007 01:54 pm
@Pythagorean,
I generally find myself in agreement with the empiricists, in general. Though, I also find myself defending a priori more than I expect to. I have no problem with a priori as the well developed method it is. Clearly, in mathematics and science, we have a great deal of use for it. Black holes were initially presented for a priori reasons, only later to be found in reality. My general alignment with the empiricists stems from the fact that I have a hard time with the notion that we could have a priori truths without empirical basis. For example:

We know that when we have one apple, and receive another apple, that we now have two apples. This can be represented as 1+1=2. The truth of the equation holds true regardless of what the numbers represented (apples or anything else). However, if we imagine a world in which when we have one apple, and are given another apple, we somehow had three apples in our posses, then the statement would change to 1+1=3. Because this seems silly, getting a second apple an magically having three, I understand why rationalists tend to view the a priori as true independent of empirical truth; I would challenge a rationalists to show me something that is a priori true which is empirically false.

Something cannot be empirically true and a priori false because the latter follows from the former.
 
Pythagorean
 
Reply Wed 12 Dec, 2007 12:03 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
The black hole example is most excellent as a modern case or usage of aprorism.

Remember, an a priori act is a mental act of abstraction that only requires sentience, and not any specific experience. So even the axioms of mere existence and identity are also necessary implications in any thought, and may be gleaned a priori.
Smile
 
Didymos Thomas
 
Reply Thu 13 Dec, 2007 05:42 pm
@Pythagorean,
Quote:
Remember, an a priori act is a mental act of abstraction that only requires sentience, and not any specific experience. So even the axioms of mere existence and identity are also necessary implications in any thought, and may be gleaned a priori.


But without experience, where do we get notions of existence and identity?

Also, is sentience a sufficient condition for a priori?
 
Pythagorean
 
Reply Thu 13 Dec, 2007 07:38 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
Didymos Thomas wrote:


But without experience, where do we get notions of existence and identity?

Also, is sentience a sufficient condition for a priori?


We do not posess intuitions of experience alone upon which we may make valid inferences because experience is changeable and unpredictable. We can't say, for example, such and such an object appears before me and thus I may infer from this experiential object that a world of such and such existence is real. Experience alone, I believe, is not stable enough for us to base intuitive premises upon.

The idea that sentience is a sufficient condition to claim from it a priori knowledge stems from Descartes who said that because he could not doubt that it was he who was thinking went forward to claim his thinking self as an axiom from which he could begin to deduce the certainty of other things in the world such as 'substance' etc. It is, I believe, from the proposition in Descartes that it is the self as thinker who can not be doubted that the a priori axioms of identity and existence are derived.

--
 
Didymos Thomas
 
Reply Thu 13 Dec, 2007 07:45 pm
@Pythagorean,
Quote:
We do not posess intuitions of experience alone upon which we may make valid inferences because experience is changeable and unpredictable. We can't say, for example, such and such an object appears before me and thus I may infer from this experiential object that a world of such and such existence is real. Experience alone, I believe, is not stable enough for us to base intuitive premises upon.


This may very well be true, but it does not answer the question: if not from experience, where do these notions come from?

Quote:
The idea that sentience is a sufficient condition to claim from it a priori knowledge stems from Descartes who said that because he could not doubt that it was he who was thinking went forward to claim his thinking self as an axiom from which he could begin to deduce the certainty of other things in the world such as 'substance' etc. It is, I believe, from the proposition in Descartes that it is the self as thinker who can not be doubted that the a priori axioms of identity and existence are derived.


Ah, you mean sentient in a more limited sense than I imagined. Generally, animals are considered to be sentient.
 
 

 
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